Back to Norm

Cleveland musician Norman Tischler put an end to fast living before it put an end to his career.

Blue Lunch Spy, 1261 West 6th, Warehouse District 10 p.m., Thursday, August 10, $5, 216-621-7907
Most of the musicians you read about are trying to "make it" and become rich and famous. There are many others, however, who realize that it's not in the cards for them to appear in Rolling Stone. Still, they persist; they're in it for the long haul, and they feel privileged to have it as a profession, even if their teaching or wedding gigs don't make headlines. And just like those of the rich and famous, their lives are full of drama. This description fits blue-collar saxophonist Norman Tischler, who, though he was born in Brooklyn, New York, has been a fixture in the Cleveland music scene for 30 years.

Tischler, 54, earns a living by teaching brass and woodwinds at Northshore Music in Euclid, playing sax with the swing/blues band Blue Lunch, subbing in other Northeast Ohio bands, playing flute, clarinet, and sax in pit bands, working as a strolling saxman at weddings and anniversaries ("It's so much hipper than being a strolling violinist," he says), and conducting the Workmen's Circle klezmer orchestra.

"In 1952, my mother gave my sister and me one harmonica and said, 'Whichever one of you learns to play it can keep it,'" he recalls. "My sister didn't care. I got it and played it by ear. I played trombone in elementary school through high school, but picked up clarinet in seventh grade."

In high school, Tischler took sax lessons at a music school that also booked him for summer jobs playing in Catskill resorts. "For the first two years, I performed at hotels that catered to older Jewish people," he says. "That's where I first heard what they now call klezmer music."

While he was in college, he continued playing in the Catskills, where he learned conducting and honed his sight-reading. Because he doesn't like "ivory tower conservatories," he turned down a chance to go to Juilliard and went instead to NYU, where he majored in music education. He then went to grad school at Indiana's Ball State, returning to upstate New York to teach. At that time he applied to VISTA, and in 1969, VISTA sent him to Cleveland, where he worked in the West Side Community House's arts program.

Soon Tischler was playing here professionally. He was in the Upbeat show's house band. During that time, he met George Woideck, head of the arts program at the Community House and a guitarist in the Tiny Alice Band. Tischler sat in with the group and was invited to join.

"Not long after that, we were the house band at the [now defunct jazz club] Smiling Dog Saloon and cut an album for [the label] Kama Sutra," he says. "We ended up touring with Sha Na Na and the James Gang, played two weeks in New York at the Bitter End, and later in Central Park with Sha Na Na. We also did a bunch of gigs with Cheech and Chong. They were hilarious, but very professional. In those days, we were known as an anti-[Vietnam] war band. We did a gig at the Virginia Military Institute with Richie Havens, and they loved us. We played West Point and Fort Dix. No one asked us to stop. Just before one of my trips to New York, my mother ran into my old girlfriend, Sybil, and we started seeing each other again, but it didn't work out. Her life was in New York, mine in Cleveland, and I was in no shape to conduct a serious romance. I was traveling a lot, doing drugs; I couldn't focus."

After leaving Tiny Alice in 1974, Tischler formed Free Wheelin', which covered songs by Steely Dan, Elvin Bishop, and J.J. Cale. In 1977, while doing casework at the Jewish Family Service, Tischler got a prestigious job working with great bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. on weekends. That lasted for about a year. But it wasn't until the early '80s, when he played with Gopher Broke, a Western swing band, that he started playing the kind of music he plays now with Blue Lunch.

"This was important, because it turned me on to swing music, which would be very important in my life later on," Tischler explains. "After that I joined Easy Street, which was based in Cleveland but toured nationally. I joined them in Houston and learned their book by listening to tapes on the train down there."

By that point, Tischler was an experienced musician and could fit into just about any pop context. In a way, though, Easy Street was a new experience for him.

"Easy Street was the first band I played in that had groupies," he says. "The girls would come over and ask me to introduce them to other guys in the band. It did my ego in. I didn't have the kind of vibes that women who chased rock and roll musicians looked for. After Easy Street, I toured and recorded with Mary Martin and the Tuna Band. It was a great opportunity to get on the road."

But the traveling took its toll on Tischler.

"We were doing a lot of driving, and I wanted to have my own car, and that's when I started doing a lot of coke," he says. "This continued unabated over the next few years. [Then] I joined the local Motown band the Motion, and we appeared in the Michael Fox/Joan Jett Movie Light of Day, which was shot here. When I was on drugs, I wasn't a very nice person. I ended up joining the biker band Bill Dawg & the Extraordinaires. Being around bikers, there was a lot of opportunity to put things in my nose and drink a lot of tequila. I would be soaked [drunk] from note one because of all the poison in my body. I was a mess, doing 8, 10 shots a gig. Nobody knew it, because I was so quiet.

"One time we were doing a double bill with D.T. & the Shakes, led by Terry Kellerman, who was a drug counselor," he continues. "He took a liking to me and said, 'Norman, when are you gonna quit cocaine and drinking and join my band?' I didn't have the courage to stop. Finally, in 1991, I went on vacation to South New Jersey, and on the way home I decided to quit. Half a gram of cocaine went out the car window on the Atlantic City Causeway. I stopped cold turkey and haven't touched coke since. I joined Terry's band, was on his CD, and my life has turned around."

A few years later, drummer Tom Konopka offered Tischler a teaching job at his studio, Midway Music, and wouldn't let him turn it down. He taught once a week and found that, with his newfound sobriety, he had more patience. One of the guitar teachers referred him to Northshore Music, where he now has 35 students ranging in age from 7 to 63.

Also improving his life is a reunion Tischler had with his old girlfriend, Sybil.

"Every year the Hessler Street Fair ran, I played it," he says. "When they had a reunion, one of my old Hessler neighbors came back from New Jersey to attend it. We talked, and I gave him my card. He went back to New Jersey, and one day he was talking to his neighbor about his old sax-playing friend and showed her my card. It was Sybil, my former girlfriend. She fell over in her iris flower bed. A couple of weeks later, she called and woke me up one Sunday morning. We've been seeing each other ever since."

They still have to deal with the distance, but they're in touch, and Tischler's pleased as he can be at that.

Tischler had been subbing for Blue Lunch's sax player and jumped at the chance to become a permanent member in 1995. Tischler had been friends with past and present members, including founder Pete London, for years. Blue Lunch had been playing swing and old-time R&B arrangements before the craze started and was perfectly positioned when it did.

"I'm so lucky to be alive -- that I get a chance to do Yiddishkeit, I play with Blue Lunch, fill in with other groups, and play zydeco," he continues. "I'm lucky to do shows like Cabaret, play with the trombonist Harold Bettors, who was with Count Basie, that I'm teaching. Many, many thanks to Terry Kellerman, who helped get me off drugs. If not for my sobriety, some of this wouldn't have happened."

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